Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.
Chad Adams’ mentor once told him, “If you don’t feed the teachers they’ll eat the kids.” That’s not at all a knock on teachers. Instead, the principal of Chicago’s Sullivan High School in Rogers Park recalls the advice as a reminder to pay attention to and care for his staff.
“If you listen to them to understand them, they will clearly articulate what their needs are,” Adams said.
Chalkbeat recently caught up with the principal, who oversees one of the most diverse high schools in Chicago. He talked about his education in Mississippi, lessons he’s learned, and what outside forces affect the 660 students who attend his school.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned as a 6-year principal?
That relationships and stories are what matter the most in this profession. Relationships between students, teachers, staff, community, fellow principals, it all comes back to the relationships we foster with each other, and our personal stories are either windows or mirrors of empathy that help us understand each other more, ultimately this will change lives for the better.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The energy and resilience of children. A lot of our kids have come from some pretty horrible situations whether it be refugee camps in war-torn countries to families ripped apart by violence or drugs. The amazing thing is the resiliency of kids. They keep on getting up every morning with hope, and if Sullivan can provide more and more hope for children in the darkest corners of this world then I have done my job.
What do you consider your biggest accomplishment so far?
Putting Sullivan back in the neighborhood high school conversation. It was a Level 3 probationary school from 2000 to 2013. Now we are a Level 2-plus school (the highest rating is a Level 1-plus), and our enrollment and academics are on the rise. Our community is proud to have Sullivan High School thriving again.
You run a neighborhood school in Chicago, a district where many are having trouble retaining students and therefore funding. What is the most challenging part of your job?
The urban principalship isn’t what it used to be 20 years ago. We are asked to be a lot of things and wear many hats. I proudly wear them every day and feel fortunate to have been selected by my staff and parents to serve. These various priorities stretch us thin sometimes and pull us away from what we need to focus on the most — teaching and learning.
But at Sullivan I have been fortunate to be able to build a solid team that can handle a lot of the daily urban challenges we face with our youth.
Curriculum is the legacy work that I’m striving for now that Sullivan is back on the map. We want to be the go-to high school for personalized learning.
What problem have you yet to solve?
There are many problems I have yet to solve, but that’s why I love the job. It’s a puzzle, and every day it invigorates me to push forward — or, like I tell the kids, “fail forward” because if you let failure define you, you always look behind you.
How do you maintain your relationship with your teaching staff?
There’s old saying my mentor, Dr. Donald Pittman, told me once, “If you don’t feed the teachers they’ll eat the kids.” It sounds funny, but it’s the truth. It’s a metaphor for teachers, and teachers like all professionals need things. If you listen to them to understand them, they will clearly articulate what their needs are.
Sometimes it’s time to plan, sometimes it’s a shoulder to cry on, sometimes it’s a day off away from work. I respect and listen to my teachers, all of them, and I think they would back me up if you asked them.
You have a particularly diverse student body in your Rogers Park school — it’s been called “refugee high.” What is something you’ve learned that might help another principal who is seeing an uptick in new immigrants?
Some of our national discourse gives our refugee and immigrant populations a false narrative. Most of all our refugee students have come to Sullivan eager to learn and engage in the community. We encourage them to share their cultures and stories and want them to embrace the beauty of both.
The district gives us more than $300,000 to support English language learners, and a ton of resources, from social workers to money for tutoring. We also build relationships with the refugee agencies to understand the cultures and the families of the children we serve.
A recent report showed that many Chicago students struggle with the transition from eighth to ninth grade: Research shows that failure of even one course during the freshman year can torpedo a student’s odds of graduation. What is something you’ve tried that is working with your freshman class?
The freshman year is the biggest predictor for high school graduation and postsecondary success as well. I have a core belief that you can’t expect something from kids until you teach them what the expectations are and model those expectations.
At Sullivan, all freshmen take a seminar course every day. The curriculum is from our partner Umoja and teaches students how to be successful in high school — working in groups, academic grade check-ins, staying organized. Our rates of freshmen on track to graduate have grown from the mid-60 percent range to the mid-90 percent range.
We also have teachers that are motivated and passionate to teach freshmen students, and help them with not only academic outcomes but social-emotional ones as well.
What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?
Social media. Our children do not understand the complexities of what they do and say on the internet. It’s the primary source of conflict in our schools. It also allows people to say and do anything without direct consequences.
Kids are hooked. They want to be in the know and want to protect themselves from the shaming and name-calling that goes on on the social media sites. The problem is the adults, from the president to celebrities, model this so what do you expect our children to do? Parents need to monitor this more, and we also need to educate kids more from kindergarten to high school on social media responsibility.
Tell us about your own experience with school, and how it affects your work today.
I grew up in Mississippi, and as you know they come in last each year in school funding, and all other educational categories as well. I struggled in school with reading, and was eventually diagnosed with a learning disability. After my mother advocated for me over and over I finally got the help I needed in schools.
Because of my disability, I failed a grade and ultimately my parents relocated the family for my middle and high school years to Indiana. I struggled there as well, failing some classes and had a low grade-point average, but eventually around my junior year, some teachers really believed in me and heard me for the first time.
They turned me on to learning about things that I had never really thought about before, and after that I made a turn for the better and my grades and my perception of learning changed. That’s when I knew, even with a reading disability, I wanted to be an English teacher.
What book is on your nightstand?
“The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living.” Being an urban educator is mentally and emotionally exhausting and I have been exposed to a world of violence, sadness and cruelty to our children, and if you don’t manage your stress in healthy, mindful ways, it can get the best of you. My personal growth is very important to me.
I’m also reading “The Five Love Languages for Men.” Part of being a good principal is being a good husband. I’m reading this so I can be better husband and speak the languages of love to my wife. I have a lot to learn. She likes “acts of service” and she’s loving the gifts I give her now, and she also likes it when I hang up my ties in the closet after work.